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Steering Indoor Farming Towards Social and Environmental Sustainability
Over the past few years there has been a lot of press coverage about the rise of "urban" and/or "indoor" farming. The evolving solutions offer more sustainable methods for growing fresh produce using advanced technology — conserving water, land, and energy in comparison to open-field farming practices while also allowing for a reduction in transportation time, fuel consumption and the associated carbon emissions. One leader in the space is Gotham Greens — which operates the largest network of high-tech, climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses in America with nine facilities across six states.
I recently spoke with the CEO of Gotham Greens, Viraj Puri, about their expansion to California, which coincided with their B Corp Certification, of for which the company had to demonstrate not just environmental, but also social sustainability. Below are some key points from my article on Gotham Greens:
Gotham Greens has a long-term mission to transform our food system by putting people and the planet at the forefront. “Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, we set out to help innovate and differentiate the fresh produce supply chain by building and operating a decentralized network of greenhouses across the United States,” Puris says. “This makes Gotham Greens a valuable partner for grocery stores, foodservice providers and community groups across the country.”
As a company that puts sustainability at its core, B Corp certification came naturally to Gotham Greens. Puri says their team learned much from the B Corp certification. “For example, we discovered that our team’s commitment to health and safety excelled beyond other businesses within our sector,” he says. “These policies earned us the highest scores in questions related to our robust safety programs, worksite protocols and self-audit practices.”
Greenhouses are at the center of Gotham Greens’ sustainability effort. “Our sunlight-powered greenhouses are sustainable from the top down. By using hydroponic growing systems and renewable electricity, Gotham Greens uses up to 95% less water and 97% less land compared to conventional farming,” Puri says. “In fact, our unique irrigation techniques use less than 1 gallon of water to grow a head of lettuce compared with up to 10 gallons used in conventional open-field farming for that same head of lettuce.”
Puri believes keeping things local is the key to achieve sustainability in indoor farming. “Our approach is designed to cut down on food miles and bring our farms closer to you,” he says. “Building greenhouses next to large urban populations and distributing our produce regionally allows us to reduce transportation time, fuel consumption and associated carbon emissions.”
Gotham Greens is currently expanding its business in California. Puri says this is because “California is the center of North America’s leafy greens production… but water shortages, wildfires and other results of climate change are straining the state’s critical agricultural resources.” Another reason, he says, is that “the partnership with the University of California system will enable Gotham Greens to innovate with the agricultural industry in California and be a part of the greater industry’s solution to the increasingly visible impacts of climate change.”
Puri discusses two long-term goals for Gotham Greens. The first goal is “reducing plastic packaging for leafy greens and herbs by 40% by 2024”, through the use of “new resealable lidded film packaging for leafy greens, which reduces plastic packaging by more than 30%”. The second goal is “achieving a reduction of 5% in our electricity use intensity by 2024 and reduce our Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emission intensity by 5% by the end of 2024,” which means “reducing reliance on fossil fuels and investing in clean energy”.
Gotham Greens’ expansion plans are oriented towards their long-term goal. “When we first started the company, we began with smaller footprints to prove the concept and have expanded our presence in response to overwhelming consumer and retailer demand for our produce and line of fresh foods,” Puri says. “While indoor farming may not represent the future of all fresh produce production, for certain types of crops, it will become more prevalent.”
With the emerging challenges brought by population growth and climate change, finding sustainable ways to produce food has never been more important. Gotham Greens one among many who are actively tackle this problem. Their success shows that indoor farming has much to offer in the transition towards sustainability.